The Curious Case of the Missing Podcasts

Where's my podcast, dude?

Where’s my podcast, dude?

by Walter Smith

In 2019 the Carter G. Woodson Institute, founded to teach and research African-American studies at the University of Virginia, announced a major initiative: a six-part podcast series exploring “Jefferson’s complicated legacy.” Funding was obtained, a launch party was thrown, and two episodes were aired. Then the podcast went silent.

What happened? Why didn’t the Woodson Institute follow the project to completion? Why would UVa heavily promote the initiative in its house media only to let it quietly disappear?

It is an arcane story, yet a telling one. It reveals much about what UVa has become. Ever since the infamous F— UVA sign was posted on the Lawn and its author referred in a secretly recorded conversation with President Jim Ryan to Thomas Jefferson as a “slave-holding rapist,” many alumni have wondered where the animus against Jefferson originated. The answer is that it comes in considerable part from the administration.

The rollout. The Woodson Institute filed a grant application with UVA’s Bicentennial Fund to produce the six episodes and was awarded $20,000 to do so. The timeline in the grant application anticipated a release in the fall of 2018 in the lead-up to the 200th anniversary of UVa’s founding.

The rollout didn’t take place until February 2019. That month UVA Today featured, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” billing it as a six-part series exploring explore Jefferson’s legacy.

“Our series wanted to seize the opportunity of the University’s bicentennial to ask, ‘What could it mean to rethink and update Jefferson for our current age, for the next generation?’” co-producer Deborah McDowell told UVA Today.

The first episode would air on February 18, 2019. Thereafter, the plan was to release podcasts monthly, covering such topics as the institution of slavery at Monticello and at the University; Sally Hemings and the Hemings family; Jefferson’s role in the history and formation of the prison system; and the role of the Haitian Revolution in Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. The project team anticipated engaging subscribers on social media, posting behind-the-scenes materials from each episode, linking to further references, and showcasing candid comments about Jefferson and the University.

The College of Arts & Sciences, headed at that time by now-Provost Ian Baucom, also promoted the podcast series.

“We’ve seen a lot of projects that look toward the past and the impact of slavery at the University of Virginia, but we’re really interested in looking at the future as well, thinking of the ways we can talk about Jefferson in more complicated, more nuanced ways,” said co-producer James Perla. “This podcast series allows us to spend time with the complexities and inconsistencies in Jefferson’s ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ that help to illuminate many of the issues with which we are still struggling today, largely because we have continually avoided confronting them honestly and straightforwardly.”

Both articles mentioned a “launch party” on February 15, 2019, and a website where all the info, episodes and raw material would be available. Today that website returns a 404 message. Only two episodes were produced, and they are exceedingly difficult to locate.

Episode 1. Episode 1 focused on Query 14 in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” one of 23 queries posed to Jefferson by the Secretary of the French legation to the United States.

I found the NPR-ish, quasi-intellectual cadence a little off-putting and the tendentious content even more objectionable. Please listen for yourself. To get a flavor of the perspective of the narrators and contributors, you can find the entire podcast here. For highlights, I would suggest the following:

In response to one question, Jefferson described a plan for emancipation of the slaves and added this speculation: “It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?” Jefferson explained his thinking based on his observations of slaves, suppositions about differences between whites and blacks, and his belief that emancipation presented practical difficulties within Virginia society for whites and blacks.

Proclaiming that Jefferson’s contradictions made him a hypocrite, the Woodson podcast performers raised the issue of his intimate relations with his slave Sally Hemings. Expanding upon the theme, they suggested that the system of racism that persists to this day could be traced back to Jefferson’s thoughts in the “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

The criticisms, I find, were highly polemical. They ignored the context of the times, and they overlooked Jefferson’s many writings condemning slavery and actions limiting its scope. For a student of history, the podcast is useless. However, does provide insight into an all-too-common mindset at UVa.

The podcast concluded with a request to subscribe, a promo for Episode 2, and a reminder that all resources for the series would be found at… which now returns the 404 message.

Episode 2. Everyone concerned with the ideological balance of the University and the intentions of its leadership should listen to Episode 2, “Coming to Terms with Sally Hemings.” 

The Jefferson-Hemings relationship has been written and speculated about since 1802 when journalist James Thompson Callender, rejected by Jefferson for a government appointment, brought it to the public’s attention. The allegations went around the world many times before the truth could find its pants! Countless books and articles have been written about the alleged dalliance. 

The reality of the relationship is disputed, however, and UVa officials know it, or should know it. The lead scholar of a commission of 13 Jefferson experts which concluded that the paternity allegation was almost certainly false is a retired UVa professor, Bob Turner!

Episode 2 presumed all six children of Sally Hemings were fathered by Jefferson despite considerable contradicting evidence. Worse, the episode almost insisted that any relationship had to be rape. In the first minute, Professor McDowell asserted that the podcast intends to “open up spaces … that might lead us in other directions, directions that have been suppressed, or distorted, if not avoided altogether.” Later Melody Barnes, executive of the Karsh Institute for Democracy, made a comment about the brutality of slavery that I believe was intended to suggest that Jefferson was the brutalizer. 

The entire presentation, asserting things as true which are either known not to be true or are highly debatable, was dishonest. I’ll offer two examples.

First, the speakers concentrated on the preferential treatment given the Hemings family as proof of a Jefferson-Hemings sexual relationship. Hemings herself was the product of multi-generational miscegenation on the side of Martha Jefferson’s family, the Wayles. She likely was Martha’s half sister. It seems not to have occurred to the Woodson commentators that Jefferson considered that fact in favoring her.

Second, I refer to the continued reference to Madison Hemings’ “testimony.” Most of the lore about a relationship comes from a Madison Hemings interview with an Ohio paper in 1873. His mother had been dead for nearly 40 years. He had lived many years as a free man, and now, post-Civil War, all former slaves had been freed. Latching onto Jefferson’s prestige would have given him an elevated status in the Black community. Whatever the truth of his assertions, the interview was not “testimony,” as in a sworn, adversarial proceeding.

Episode 2 closed with a reference to the same website that no longer exists for further information, along with credits and requests for subscribing to the series.

As confirmed by the university’s response to my FOIA query, the Woodson Institute’s podcasts on “Notes on the State of Virginia,” episodes 3 through 6, do not exist. Stated the FOIA officer:  “Only two episodes of this podcast were produced because the onset of the COVID pandemic prevented the production of the remaining episodes. There are no additional episodes.”

So, what happened? UVa and the Bicentennial Fund had funded production of six podcasts, and UVa Today and the College of Arts & Sciences had promoted it. Why was the project never completed?

The COVID epidemic explanation defies credulity. Woodson aimed originally, as outlined in the grant application, to complete the project by the fall of 2018. The project launched in February 2019. COVID did not reach the U.S. until March 2020 — a full year later! If COVID lockdowns delayed production of final episodes, why was production not resumed after the university reopened?

A more likely explanation is that the initial podcasts were not well received. Perhaps the presentation was so dull that no one listened to them, and Woodson scrapped the series out of pure embarrassment. I cannot dismiss that possibility.

However, there is another potential explanation. Someone spiked the project.

Before the nation entered a frenzy over race after the George Floyd killing in early 2020, the podcast subject matter was kryptonite. It was one thing to purge the names of long-forgotten Confederates, slave holders and segregationists from memorials and buildings, as the Racial Equity Task Force recommended, but slamming the author of the Declaration of Independence was a bridge too far. In public Ryan walked a fine line, speaking of the necessity of “contextualizing” Jefferson’s statue on grounds, yet declining to disavow the university’s founder as many urged him to. “I do not believe the statue should be removed, nor would I ever approve such an effort,” he said in October 2022. “As long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson.”

Episode 2 in particular was radioactive. The episode revealed deep hostility to Jefferson, an unwillingness to consider anything that would cast him in a favorable light, and an eagerness to assume the most sinister of motives in everything he said and did. 

I searched diligently for the Episodes and resources at the Woodson Institute website. There is a Videos tab, but no mention of the podcasts. Since the linked videos were on YouTube, I clicked the Woodson logo and found its YouTube channel. There have been 99 videos put up. I found a short video prepared for the podcast “Launch Party.” But there are no YouTube links to the podcasts themselves!

Only by exploring every aspect of the Woodson site did I find the first two “Notes on the State” podcast with a WordPress URL. Why would an academic institution keep a document on WordPress, as opposed to its own server? At least the supporting documents still exist, mostly. In the “Archive” there are 14 full interviews of 15 people. However, the “About” tab says 17 interviews were conducted. Why were they hidden or deleted?

There is no explanation anywhere from UVa or the Woodson Institute on why the series was abruptly terminated or why the materials were deleted or buried.

Many signs point to the conclusion that someone put the kibosh on the project. That someone had to be a person high in the UVa hierarchy, maybe Ryan himself. Why? Perhaps because deep-pocketed donors were offended, or because Ryan feared they might be offended. In this interpretation Ryan, fearing a backlash from woke faculty members, killed the project quietly. This is pure speculation, of course. But some explanation is called for.

Ryan on Jefferson. Ryan invokes the name of Thomas Jefferson seldomly in his formal remarks, and when he does, it is rarely to sing his praises. In one speech outlining his vision for the university, Ryan refers to Jefferson’s “brilliance” but also his “brutality.” His feelings are clearly ambivalent.

Ryan has never publicly addressed the deplorable narratives that the Student Guides have inflicted upon visitors of the university. The Jefferson Council has documented the warped training materials and the negative reaction of many prospects and their parents. Shouldn’t tours given in collaboration with the Admissions Office “sell” the school by emphasizing Jefferson’s virtues? Shouldn’t the president of the university set the tone? Under pressure from former Rector Whitt Clement and other members of the Board of visitors, the Admissions Office promised to make changes in the new academic year. We shall see.

Then there’s Ian Baucom, a man of the left who was hired in 2014 (four years before Ryan became president) as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Among his academic accomplishments, Baucom authored a book, “Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History.” Based on an atrocious incident in which the captain of a slaving ship threw 133 slaves overboard in order to collect on an insurance claim, according to the Amazon book blurb, Baucom argues that the tragedy is central not only to our understanding of the slave trade but “the history of modern capital and ethics.”

According to Deborah McDowell, who was part of the search committee, Baucom said repeatedly during his interview for his position as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences that UVa must become the university of Thomas Jefferson AND Sally Hemings. Here is an excerpt from his interview for the Woodson podcasts:

We were founded by a community in Liberty and a community in bondage. We were founded and built by people who were enslaved. Sally Hemings was there at our beginning. And in some ways it’s a fairly simple attempt to recognize the plurality in the brokenness of that founding. It’s a recognition statement. I try to think of it as a, an attempt to name to whom we belong. Whose are we? Whose children are we? Whose Generations are we? and there’s something very particular about Sally Hemings and the duration of women and men, black women and men, African American women and men to whom we need to belong. There’s something, to me, symbolic about saying Sally Hemings. As a woman whose name, names many who for many years were not allowed to belong to this institution. But to whom we belong, Republic. And it’s a statement of aspiration not of who we are yet, but of who we need to be. I think of it as a challenge as much to myself as anyone else. What would it mean to make that true in practice and action and not only in recognition and from that perspective, um, have we yet fully become Sally Hemings University? No, we haven’t. That work isn’t done…

The passage is impenetrable and absurd. Whatever the nature of her relationship with Jefferson, Hemings played no role in the formation of UVa. She wasn’t “there at the beginning.” She was in Monticello. Yet far from finding Baucom’s views idiosyncratic or extreme, Ryan promoted him — in violation of normal practice, without a nationwide search — to provost, the chief academic officer for UVa.

Baucom maintains that intellectual diversity is alive at Mr. Jefferson’s university. Yet the prevailing zeitgeist at UVa brooks no dissent on the Hemings controversy. Given that the expert on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is a retired UVa law school professor, Bob Turner, it is striking that the administration has never provided an educational forum to sift through what is known about Hemings, what is speculated, and what is outright false.

UVa claims to be “unequivocal” in support of “free expression and free inquiry.” That is a lie. Professor Turner has been champing at the bit to set the record straight. But rather than heeding Jefferson’s admonition to “follow the truth wherever it will lead,” UVa promotes the false narrative at every turn and makes no effort to expose members of the university community to any other view.

But there are limits, it appears, to how vehemently Jefferson may be excoriated. Either the podcasts were so terminally dull that no one listened to them and the producers scrapped it, or the revisionist history went too far. Calling the founding father a rapist might alienate tradition-minded alumni who remain stubbornly retrograde in their appreciation of Jefferson, thus threatening the flow of donations that are the life blood of the university. And that the university’s leadership could never abide.

Walter Smith is chair of the Jefferson Council’s research committee. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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8 months ago

What of the statement by Douglas Murray that there is no actual proof the Jefferson fathered any children or even kept Sally Hemmings as his concubine? All that is known is that a male of the Jefferson family’s DNA is found. And that Jefferson’s brother and more notably his son had a reputation for abusing slave women…and that Sally Hemmings was part of Jefferson’s father’s estate and therefore willed to Jefferson. There is no actual eye-witness testimony recorded. There is no actual DNA evidence that can specifically link Jefferson to Hemming’s children. And there are Jefferson’s own writing condemning slavery….. Why are people so determined to deride Jefferson when there are doubts?

8 months ago
Reply to  MG50

Jefferson’s nephew…his brother’s son…not Jefferson’s son.

8 months ago

Excellent article, Walter. All roads lead to the dynamic Ryan/Baucom duo when analyzing the relentless anti-Jefferson culture that now permeates UVA. Until they are removed, nothing will change.

Jack Cann
Jack Cann
8 months ago

The vapid gobbledegook quote from Baucom says much about the current thinking of the administration. As to Hemings, when she was with Jefferson in Paris, where she was not a slave and was free, if she were consorting with Jefferson, then why did she not conceive? Is it possible that there was simply a platonic friendship? Why are we so determined to think the worst of a person when the evidence is flimsy? Perhaps it says more about what the university has become than about Mr. Jefferson.

Joseph Sahid
Joseph Sahid
8 months ago

At the very least The Law School as well as the undergraduate school should offer a course, staffed by a neutral observer, which reviews all that is known about Mr. Jefferson’s evolving views on slavery and the evidence (or lack thereof) of his rumored relationship with Sally Hemings. Let his University do what he advocated– pursuing the facts.

walter smith
walter smith
8 months ago
Reply to  Joseph Sahid

I know you have commented frequently on the lack of a defense of Jefferson by TJC or Bert Ellis. It’s not that we aren’t trying! Or that Jefferson is indefensible. I’m hoping here to bring awareness to the alumni and BOV of how bad the situation is. And I think it is intentional. The truth is known – as much as we can know – but untruth is spread. U Guides, and podcasts like these. While THE expert is in Charlottesville, right now, desperately desiring to set the record straight.

Just look at the linked YouTube video – every student asked about Jefferson had to condemn him…4.5 years ago and it is only worse. My rising 3rd year daughter rolls her eyes when I start to mention Jefferson. Again – I say intentional from the Admin.

It’s a big commit – listen to all of Episode 2. Then, if you are a glutton for punishment, go to the WordPress link (really – WordPress, not the Woodson site?) and check out the interviews (transcripts are available).

UVA did not produce the documents on the WordPress site – I had to find them. And there is no way there weren’t/aren’t at least outlines for the other planned podcasts, but UVA FOIA says only the two linked podcasts…

The BOV is not without fault, and it should not be wait until Youngkin has another year of appointments. It never should have gotten to this state! Do your educational job and duty to the citizens of the Commonwealth and quit being political hacks!

James B Newman
James B Newman
8 months ago

Bravo Walter Smith! A very concise and well written article offering truths that everyone should ponder. I simply do not understand, other than for the reason of selling books or pushing false narratives for evil purposes, why everyone seems to be quick to tarnish Jefferson’s name with the allegations of a relationship with “young Sally”. Not helpful. I am quick to ask why the $ 20,000 was not returned? Why is Baucom’s continued presence allowed to tarnish the University?

8 months ago

This article brings to mind the current suspension by the Lifetime Learning section of the Office of Engagement of the Summer Jefferson Symposium(formerly titled Summer on the Lawn as administered by the School of Continuing and Professional Studies). As an alumnus I had always wanted to attend this annual event and was finally able to do so this last summer. As I found out many attendees were perennial participants and the program enjoyed a devoted following which I had planned to become a part of as it was a very enjoyable experience.
So I waited this year for registration information and nothing. I contacted Althea Brooks the director to inquire and she related the choice had been made to discontinue with no foreseeable plans to reinstitute.
The symposium I attended was very insightful and focused on the events leading up to Jefferson’s first presidential term. To his consternation the country for which his peers had just risked their very lives to create was now under Adams drifting back into the ways of an authoritarian, totalitarian regime. And under the recently enacted Alien and Sedition Act was imprisoning newspaper editors who dared criticize the administration. Free speech and reasoned dialogue be damned. Sound familiar? The symposium detailed how Jefferson was able to put the country back on course so as to benefit future generations.
Questions I posed to Brooks as to why the symposium was cancelled this year were either not answered or were sidestepped. Given the current anti-Jefferson narrative the answers though are clearly evident in the non-answers she provided. A pathetic current state of affairs at the very University that was his last gift to an exceptional nation heretofore not seen in human history. He founded it on truth and that truth inevitably will prevail when the current sickness is excised and rightfully placed on the ash heap of history.

G. Richard Connolly
G. Richard Connolly
8 months ago

Excellent article Walter Smith. Further proof (as if we needed more) of how academia has run amuck. Our administration has taken their “eye off the ball” as teachers, professors and administrators. Higher education should be about developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Today it is pure indoctrination to a grievance culture and socialism. Check-out today’s Wall Street Journal which details the rise of this perfidious culture over the last twenty years in the nation’s top public universities — the academic industrial/socialist complex. While our beloved UVA is not called out in the article, you will surely recognize the rise in tuition along with the rise of useless academic administrators. It took us a generation and a half to get here, it will take real boards with real financial acumen and power to unwind this mess! I hope we have the will to see it through.